Posted in Art

Re: Presentation

Re: Presentation

Is this my best side?

For some artists, the attempt to package an image of themselves for the world can be maddening; for others, it may come as a natural extension of their practice.

Performing the role of artist may be difficult for some because of the unclear nature of the boundaries of this role in contemporary society – self-representing artists need to create work, maintain a cohesive practice, write statements about themselves and their work, and market themselves through social media.

The influence of academia on contemporary art practice leaves many feeling unable to write convincingly about their right to a seat at the table without resorting to obfuscating artspeak (been there).

Those who feel more at ease with marketing may feel happy to wear lots of hats at once; those who don’t may feel disadvantaged by their natural discomfiture.

To PhD or not to PhD

Personally, I often question whether I’m going the right way: I’ve ended up with a crazy mix of academic writing and traditional portraiture skills, with a magpie selection of media thrown in as well. I genuinely love researching and writing, but I thrive on making. This caused more than a bit of internal conflict when I did an art theory MA that had very little art in it anywhere.

Every year, it seems as though I find a PhD scholarship or studentship that makes me sit up and have a crisis of direction. This happens although I’ve already decided that a career as an academic is neither likely because of my age and circumstances, nor is it what I really want… so why am I tempted?

It’s because I was raised to believe that getting academic qualifications was the way to prove your value in this world. Although I don’t believe that now, childhood training is hard to forget.

I believe that the art world is overly obsessed with proving itself through rigid external structures, either through auction house prices or scholarly qualifications. Surely the best way of proving yourself as an artist is in making your own art.

Re: Presentation. For self-representing artists, deciding on how to go about the business of presentation, marketing and branding is often challenging.

Polymath or hot mess

The question remains unanswered for me: which is my best side?  I still have a mistrust of marketing, but I know that the best practice for artists looking to establish themselves is to develop a visual language or style… to work in a specific category or medium, work in series – develop a thing, a hook or gimmick, to be blunt. But that doesn’t always seem to come naturally to me. Obviously, people are my main “thing”, but they aren’t my only interest.

I don’t buy into notions of singular authenticity and purity in art practice. If anything, I came to dislike the rules for “serious” art practice that I came across whilst studying.

I like to call myself a polymath because it sounds better than saying I have shiny object syndrome. The fact is, I love writing, and not just about art; I love drawing, painting, carving, building, printing and coming up with empires in my head that never make it past my notebook.

So I’ll stick with polymath, or whatever helps me make the art I want to make whenever I want to make it.


Fight

Fight – a painting about masculinity and vulnerability combined.

“Fight” encapsulates the conflict between the portrayal of outwardly brutal masculinity with the vulnerability of the body affected by violence.

 

Fight, oil on paper painting by Lee Devonish, 2016. Masculinity and vulnerability.
Fight. Oil on paper, 2016.

In/Out of the series

It is part of what I call the muscle series, but as a portrait it stands outside of the main body of the group, not depicting the body or muscularity.

The idea of the series is to look at the body under transformation. It’s easy to see how this has become a theme that interests me, having been married to a keen amateur bodybuilder for several years now. He seems to naturally have a body that lends itself to being a model, being athletic and infuriatingly good at almost every sport without much apparent effort – but in fact his body as it is now is a product of a lot of very hard work in addition to any underlying capability.

 

Trauma

But this painting doesn’t focus on the body; instead, it focuses on the face and picks up on a point of apparent trauma. I could reveal the source of the injury, but perhaps it would be better to leave the air of mystery surrounding the event, with only the title to serve as a clue.

There’s clearly been some dramatic, violent event that has left its evidence, and it’s this visual punctuation that punches the macho façade of the strongman and shows vulnerability.

 

Movie men

But strength and vulnerability in men as depicted in visual culture are strangely contradictory, as often the transcending, larger-than-life heroes of the cheesiest action movies are the ones who are physically pummelled and beaten to ragged, bloody shreds. (Yes, I’m a child of the 80’s.) I wondered if women found these male types appealing as they are softened by pain and suffering, and if men also found these types appealing because of their transcendence over pain and suffering – it’ll likely be a combination.

It later occurred to me that some men just like to fight.

 

Masculinity and vulnerability

So this picture grew from the concept of fighting for the purpose of acting out that “hero masculinity” – seeking out and wearing wounds to display strength to society.

 

 

 

It’s now available in my store, and some prints are available at Zazzle.


Perspective

Perspective

Graphite on paper, 2011

I’ve always been attached to my artworks – I don’t churn them out, and I feel a strong sense of reluctance when it comes to selling them. There are a few that I’ll never sell though, and Perspective is one of them.

Drawing children

Children grow and change so quickly, and capturing them on a smartphone screen is understandably something that parents today can’t resist. (If you don’t have a baby bore on one of your social media feeds, then it’ll be you.)

None of our images are fixed, but their images are more precious because of being in such rapid transition. Speaking of rapid, it’s incredibly hard to draw children (or at least a child like mine) from life, as they’re constantly in motion and cannot sit still if they’re told to.

Still, drawing your child is a strange and enlightening experience. You’re able to employ and enjoy your love for them in an entirely new way.

The Arboretum

The image I used for this artwork came from a photograph I took of my son when we were in Boston, MA in 2010. It was the first time I’d been able to travel to the USA in 10 years due to visa restrictions on Barbadian citizens, and the first time I’d been able to take my son to visit his grandmother at her house.

On this day we took the bus to Arnold Arboretum alone. It was a good day for it – sunny and warm. When I think about it now, there aren’t many details, which is a bit sad; me, looking at horticultural labels and picking out postcards for souvenirs, and my little boy constantly racing ahead of me.

We reached a pond and stopped, and I snapped a picture of him looking out over the water. The photograph itself was nice enough, but I don’t know exactly what it was that made it stand out so much in my mind.

 

Perspective by Lee Devonish. Click on the picture to read more about the story behind this drawing.

Water

There’s the combination of dread whenever water and children come together, along with the way the water and the rippling patterns on its surface captured us both. It was a beautiful scene, but the idea of this young life spread out before us like the surface of the water (with so much unseen going on underneath) must have stuck with me.

I remembered us experiencing this and wondered about his perspective on the world.

The drawing itself is simple and sparse, with a lot left out, but that leaves the focus on the little boy and the setting before him, which may or may not even be water if you look at it for long enough.

This is one that I won’t ever sell. This memory feels as though it was yesterday, but looking at my child today, the boy in the drawing seems so small… at least I’ve caught that day for myself.

 

This drawing is available as a print from my Zazzle store.


Muse 4.3 (The Ear)

Muse 4.3 (The Ear)

I came up with the idea for the series of paintings that I’d call ‘The Muses’ whilst studying for my BA in Fine Art in 2012. Muse #4 was the subject of several paintings and drawings, but this one, 4.3, is one of my favourites.

 

Let’s face it – there’s a sense of power in looking when the subject cannot look back. How much more so is that true in a situation where the one looking is allowed to get this close… too close… to an unguarded point on the body?

Creepy. That’s what’s good about it.

 

Influence – Ellen Altfest

There were all sorts of influences flying around me at the time, as there naturally are in art school, but for these, I was particularly guided by Ellen Altfest and a trip to see her exhibition The Bent Leg at the White Cube in Hoxton. (Quite a lot of capital letters in that sentence – comes across a bit pretentious!)

There’s a clear link between Altfest’s tightly cropped images of male body parts and the portraits (and male body parts) that I created for my degree show. Seeing the detail she clearly laboured over up close made me want to dive into that painstaking labour process as well, although I could imagine that the experience was hallucinatory. Actually, I might have read that phrase somewhere in my research – either that, or I’m hallucinating the hallucination reference, which is entirely possible.

The exhibition, which was part of a class outing,  was a very encouraging experience for me as the only figurative painter in the group and the only one concerned with representational painting and hyperrealism. Seeing a female artist’s paintings of male subjects created in exactly the same manner as I’d intended to, with a focus so sharp it verged on the unreal, well, I suppose it was validating.

 

 

Muse 4.3 Oil on board painting by Lee Devonish

 

The White Cube kindly let me use some of the images for my dissertation on the male nude, which also referenced Ellen Altfest as well as Sylvia Sleigh.

 

Gendering

I suppose I’d have to ask myself now, what part of the ear suggests masculinity? It’s not the ear so much as the surrounding hair and the haircut which frames this part as belonging to one gender or another. Now that answer could take me off on another hair-related tangent, but it’s safe to say that hair is still a subject I find interesting.

Whilst it was the hair, and responding to Altfest’s detailed layering of hairs that I was preoccupied with at the time, now I am more drawn to the fleshiness and folds of the ear itself. This was just a starting point for the work ahead. My future paintings will probably owe their ‘intensity of looking’ to this series, and to this picture in particular, the closest image of them all.

 

 

This painting will be available to purchase from my Etsy store.

A postcard of this painting is also available on Zazzle – click here to view.


Fearless John

Fearless John – the story behind a watercolour painting.

I was walking through a shopping centre in Ashford one day in the summer between terms at art school when something caught my eye.

There was something strange about the young man working at the mobile phone kiosk – I’d already walked by when my brain finally worked out that it was the handlebar moustache he sported.

 

Fearless John, watercolour painting by Lee Devonish, 2011 | handlebar moustache painting
Fearless John. Watercolour on paper, 2011.

 

A handlebar moustache painting was already on my mind…

I’d never seen anyone so young wearing a moustache like that, so carefully curled. It stood out to me because I’d been thinking about male facial hair a lot at the time, as part of a project on gender signifiers. (At the time, I was pretty oblivious to trends. I didn’t have a tv and I had no interest in fashion: both still true. I didn’t realise that soon, handlebar moustaches would be on everyone, even as jewellery and clothing prints on those who couldn’t grow them.)

After I got home, I started to regret not asking the stranger if I could paint his portrait.

 

It’s more than a bit strange, sure, but I decided to ask the next time I saw him, if there was ever a next time.

 

Of course, I did see him the very next time I went into town, but this time I was armed with my camera and business card to prove I wasn’t just a nutter. He was actually quite happy to be painted, which was a relief in that situation! I took my picture and scurried away as fast as I could.

 

 

Discovering my mystery model’s identity

After the term had started, one of my classmates saw my painting and recognised my subject as one of her friends and told me his name – John. I’d actually aged him up a bit. I now had a name (and a title) for my painting.

Still, he was very pleased with the result when I carried the painting down to the shopping centre to show him. That’s the last I saw of John.

 

The story behind this painting: Fearless John | watercolour handlebar moustache painting | portrait of a man

This artwork is available as a postcard here.

 


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